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Enter A Wizard

Manish Nandy |

I didn’t care much for classical music and had simply accompanied a persuasive girl friend to a performance where apparently some celebrity was to sing. Typical in India, the event started at eight, and performers less known exhibited their skills in the initial hours. Unlike in the west, listeners felt free to talk, go out for a snack, keep beat audibly and even shout encouragements. I wasn’t used to this and took it in, curiously, like a circus show.

At eleven, the major artists started performing and the audience seemed more attentive. I tried to concentrate and enjoy an unfamiliar performing art, more impressed than thrilled by the virtuosity of the maestros. By two in the morning, I was tired, my focus blurred, when a roar arose from the crowd as the next artist’s name was announced. Evidently, he was well known and eagerly anticipated.

A fifty-year-old entered, quickly took his seat, patently inured to the applause, nodded respectfully at the two accompanying musicians, closed his eyes for a second and then opened his mouth.

An electric shock passed through me at the sound of his voice. It was a powerful, seamless voice, almost inhuman in its controlled majestic force. I didn’t so much listen as felt enveloped in a warm, eerie experience. I wasn’t a religious person, but I underwent what seemed like a spiritual experience. The bizarre thought occurred to me that, should I somehow touch him, I could say that I had touched something holy. I am not sure how long he sang. Time had stood still for me and for others. I had heard the story of how he had left home at ten, penniless, after hearing a recital by the master Abdul Karim Khan, to search for a teacher who would show him how to sing like Khan. He became an itinerant singer living on others’ largess, until eight years later he found a tutor who was himself Khan’s protégé. He had gone on to become a legend. I was hearing a voice that could shatter your notion of music and, like Hamelin’s Piper, entice you on an unknown journey from your familiar universe.

When he stopped and quietly folded his hands in the traditional gesture of completion, the crowd seemed petrified. Minutes passed before a giant roar of applause followed his humble, quick exit from the stage.


(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])